They say home is where the heart is. Chef Vineet Bhatia, Ziya, the Oberoi Mumbai, talks to Time 'n Style Luxury about his passion for food, and why he never needs to stray too far from his roots.
Was food a passion from early on?
As a child, I was a very poor eater. I chanced upon food quite accidentally. I actually wanted to become a pilot for the Air Force. When that didn't work out, I joined hotel management; thinking that I would work at a bar, mixing cocktails, but the kitchen was my calling. I walked in one day, and never looked back. Now, you can't keep food away from me.
What are your beliefs and inspiration, with regards to food?
My food philosophy can be explained in three words-keep it simple. The flavour of the elements needs to come through, so it needs to be uncomplicated and focus on the key ingredients. Fresh produce makes all the difference in achieving this end. A good quality product treated with respect and love will taste divine just as is, and doesn't need embellishments.
I've never had a godfather in the industry, but I have been lucky to have brilliant grounding and training in my field from the Institute of Hotel Management in Dadar, to the start of my career at the Oberoi Hotel. But I moved out of India at a very young age, so I didn't really have a particular mentor to teach me. Instead, I learnt from everyone, everywhere. However, I do admire world class chefs that have built successful food empires like Alain Ducasse.
What are your thoughts on Indian cuisines?
Indian fare runs in my blood. I've grown up on it, so it's not something I can get bored of. There is an immense depth of flavours and spices in Indian cuisine that you don't necessarily come across in other cuisines. Plus, we also have very deep historical and cultural ties with food. Every successive empire that ruled India diversified the cuisine, which adds to the deep rooted food culture of the country.
Tell us about your travels with food.
I've had the good fortune to travel to many places, especially now on account of my new show, Twist of Taste. This opportunity has only made me realise how different each place is from the next, even within India. From Punjab to Chennai and Delhi to Guwahati, the food element is monumental. I tend to keep each food memory as a souvenir of all the places I've been to, and then try and incorporate styles, techniques, flavours and ingredients from different places into my cuisine. Internationally, I am partial towards Venezuela because it was pristine and untouched, and from those crystal clear waters, I got to try some of the best seafood I've ever eaten in my life---the simplest preparation of seafood (char-grilled with a little salt, pepper and lime), sitting on the beach; it was a magical meal.
How would you describe the art of cooking?
Cooking is a medium of self-expression, and I believe that a chef's personality shines through his food. Also, your mood plays a huge role in the food you prepare and the menus you decide. I pick up techniques and adapt them to my style of cooking. Asking a chef which one of his creations he likes best is like asking a father to pick a favourite son; you just can't do it. That said, I have a sweet tooth, and I can safely say that the chocolates samosas I have on my menu are by the far the most famous, and most loved item by all my patrons. There's a blend of dark chocolate, white chocolate and almond, in a samosa. What's not to love?
How did receiving the Michelin star change your life?
It came as a big surprise when we were awarded our first Michelin star. Way back in 1999, when we opened Rasoi, the idea was to cook from your heart and please your guests, and that's exactly why we got a star after a mere year of opening. An achievement like that really changes your life because you are lifted to the limelight and the food that you cook and believe in gets the recognition it deserves. Also, it helps you stand out from the crowd because once you have a star. You are taken a lot more seriously, which motivates you to do better and push the boundaries. The essence of my cooking has not changed, but I have certainly taken all my experiences and evolved.
How did you get from the kitchen to reality TV?
We were very clear about not wanting to venture into television initially. So when we were approached, I agreed to do a show only if it was educational in some way. I had no interest in doing the same kind of cooking shows with butter chicken and rogan ghosht that you see on television today. They left it to me, and I came up with the idea of discovering food from different places and putting a twist to the traditional dish, so that the flavour is the same, but is prepared or looks completely different. The idea pleases people because there is food, travel as well as room for creativity.
We visited each place, went to local markets, walked through the street and found our inspiration there itself. What we cooked on each episode was pretty much decided on the spot, taking cues from our interaction with the locals because that's where the true taste of India is, not in five-star hotels.
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